Operation Barras - Background


See also: British military intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War

Sierra Leone is a former British colony in West Africa, close to the equator, with an area of 71,740 square kilometres (27,700 square miles)—similar in size to South Carolina or Scotland. In 2000, the country had been consumed by a civil war since 1991. The West Side Boys were a militia group who had been involved in the civil war. They were initially loyal to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel army opposing the government. They later fought for the government, against the RUF, and were involved in at least one operation directed by British officers in exchange for weapons and medical supplies. But the West Side Boys refused to integrate into the reconstituted Sierra Leone Army and began operating as bandits from the abandoned villages of Magbeni and Gberi Bana, on opposite sides of Rokel Creek.

British forces were deployed to Sierra Leone in May 2000, initially for a non-combatant evacuation operation under the codename Operation Palliser, in which they were tasked with evacuating foreign nationals—particularly those from the United Kingdom, other Commonwealth countries, and others for whom the British government had accepted consular responsibility. As part of the mission, British forces secured Sierra Leone's main airport, Lungi. Having secured Freetown and Lungi, and evacuated the foreign nationals who wished to leave, the initial forces left and were replaced by a "Short Term Training Team" (STTT), whose mission was to train and rebuild the Sierra Leone Army. The STTT was initially based around a detachment from 2nd Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, who were replaced in July 2000 by 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment (1 RIR).

The Special Air Service (SAS) is a corps of the British Army and part of the United Kingdom's special forces. It consists of three regiments, of which two are drawn from the Territorial Army and one regular regiment—22 Regiment, which was involved in Operation Barras. The SAS was formed by Colonel David Stirling in Africa in 1941, at the height of the Second World War. Its original role was to penetrate enemy lines and strike at airfields and supply lines deep in enemy territory, first in North Africa and later around the Mediterranean and in occupied Europe. Stirling established the principle of using small teams—having realised that small, well-trained teams could sometimes prove much more effective than a unit of hundreds of soldiers. The SAS first entered the public eye after Operation Nimrod, the operation to end the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980.

The Parachute Regiment is part of the British Army's infantry and, as in the SAS, applicants must undergo an additional level of scrutiny in order to be accepted. Unlike in the SAS, new recruits to the army can apply to join the Parachute Regiment directly from the Infantry Training Centre at Catterick in Yorkshire (in the case of soldiers) or the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (for officers). The regiment, whose personnel are commonly known as "paras", specialises in parachute and other types of airborne insertion, and has close ties to the SAS, providing more of its personnel than any other regiment.

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